University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Teaching Writing Through Sustainability

Molly Lehman

Molly Lehman

Here’s a topical course that teaches engineering students how to write properly by tapping into their passion for environmental causes and professional development.

College of Engineering Lecturer Molly Lehman, who teaches ENGIN 351: Writing in Engineering as part of the college’s Junior Year Writing Program, is using a $1,000 Faculty Fellowship from the UMass Sustainability Curriculum Initiative to integrate concepts and content related to sustainability practices into her syllabus. The Sustainability Curriculum Initiative supports faculty members interested in revising existing courses to include or augment sustainability topics, amplifying the use of library resources and services, and collaborating with subject librarians. See Sustainability Curriculum Initiative 2015-2016.

Lehman has revised all four sections of her junior-year writing course to use sustainability as a writing tool which gives her students “excellent opportunities to discuss civic engagement and professional responsibility as they prepare for careers that affect their environment.”

The course draws students from every department in the college, a factor that can encourage perceptive conversations about systems thinking and interdisciplinary solutions.

“Emphasizing sustainability would both support the Sustainability Curriculum Initiative and bolster Writing in Engineering’s current course objectives,” says Lehman. “This course asks students to consider texts rhetorically and to understand the genres of their profession; the discourse of sustainability provides key moments for both.”

Lehman believes that sustainability is “an ideologically charged topic” that demonstrates rhetoric’s importance in tackling technological challenges. “For instance, I might ask students to read the 1987 Brundtland Report, then discuss the meaning of ‘sustainable development’ and the connection between controlling meaning and controlling technological change.”

Formally known as the World Commission on Environment and Development, the Brundtland Commission's mission was to unite countries to pursue sustainable development together.

Lehman says that, by completing assignments linked to the mushrooming field of sustainable development, students can practice the rhetoric that clearly communicates their ideas both as professional engineers and ethical citizens of the world.

Lehman also observes that writing exercises and classroom conversation on sustainability can motivate students to write more cogently, organize their thinking more logically, and put their engineering career in a more panoramic perspective. Course readings might include, for instance, a process description about how green roofs work, or a proposal about offshore wind from the IGERT Offshore Wind Energy Program.

According to one study, engineers generally spend about 36 percent of their professional time in the lab and the field, collecting and analyzing data. The other 64 percent will be spent proposing and communicating their work to their colleagues, their industry, and the public.

“Without the ability to communicate wisely and efficiently, you cannot work meaningfully as an engineer,” says Lehman. She adds that “One of the most effective ways we can see why writing matters to engineers is to see how it works in the ‘real world.’”

As Lehman says, university-wide, the topic of sustainability—that is, interconnections between economy, society, and environment—has created new opportunities for academic life to inform and be informed by the political and environmental realities beyond our campus. This course encourages the majors in the College of Engineering to study the ways in which writing can make certain that work in sustainability and other fields gets done properly.

“We will discuss and deploy theories of rhetoric to understand and contextualize genre, accomplish sustainable initiatives, and communicate important ideas to the public,” explains Lehman. “We will also investigate ethics in engineering practice and research. Our work on the rhetoric of sustainability will encompass traditional technical and scientific writing forms, including outlines, summaries, process descriptions, reports, posters, and proposals.”

As Lehman concludes, “Many students in the College of Engineering already demonstrate pronounced, enthusiastic interest in and commitment to sustainability initiatives. This revised course will build on their enthusiasm, providing them with the rhetorical tools they need to pursue these passions, locally and globally.” (February 2016)